Thursday, December 20, 2007


Life can be extreme at times, and in Zambia this seems especially so. Here, people’s lives are immersed in varying aspects of extremeness – extreme struggles, extreme weather, extreme life. And sometimes, all of these many extremes collide and come crashing together to form one colossally extreme day.

Today was one of those days.

A couple of days ago, some Zambian friends of ours, a beautiful young couple only married a few years, lost their daughter (their one and only child) to malaria. Their little girl was 18 months old.

The funeral was today – a dreary, rainy day, and everything about it was extreme. The day began when we were asked to take a group of ladies to the mortuary so they could prepare the body for burial before the church service! Here only the very rich can afford to have a body prepared by a funeral home. Instead, in most cases this is a task done by family members. And so, a group of 5 ladies piled into our vehicle and headed off to the mortuary to do whatever it is one does to prepare a body for burial; grandmothers and aunts and one tiny white coffin and all along the way they worshiped God in Nyanja singing a song that went something like “My life, my life belongs to you O’ Lord, my child my child belongs to you O’ Lord.”

When they had finished, we then went to the church for a short service before making our way to the cemetery for the committal. As we entered the church service and took our seats, I looked up and all the female family members were gathered together and sitting on the floor at the front of the sanctuary. As the coffin was brought in they all began to cry and wail and weep. I noticed the baby’s mother, Agnes, with her head lying across the lap of another woman. She looked as though her whole body was crying; as though her flesh were conscious that it had lost a part of itself. It was as though she longed to go to that place that mothers seem to go to for their seemingly endless supply of maternal strength, that strength that enables them to time and time again cast aside their own desires and wants for the sake of others. It seemed that she was trying, wanting desperately to go there, to go to that well and draw once again. But this time, there was nothing there. The well was dry. She was contorted and her back was arching forward and then backward, her arms hanging limp and as she cried, I began to cry. In fact I think we all cried who were there.

After the service ended we made our way to the grave site, rain still pouring down, the coffin again placed in the back of our 4x4. The same ladies that had prepared the body at the mortuary climbed in and we began to make our way across town. The cemetery here is nothing like the manicured lawns and neatly marked graves you would see in America. Here the cemetery is one grave after another, packed in as tightly as they can get them. The whole place is dirt with no grass at all, only a few green and overgrown shrubs along the roads. Most of the graves have only rudimentary markers, made of tin welded to an iron rod shoved into the ground. The graves are piled high with dirt, mounds rising a couple of feet above the surface of the ground. This is due in large part to the fact that when the coffin is placed in the grave, it is usually encased in cement to prevent people from steeling the clothes of the deceased. So, all the dirt displaced by the cement sits high atop the ground making it appear as though the bodies were just below the surface.

As the coffin was being lowered into the grave, I looked around at those gathered, standing in the pouring rain and in a seemingly endless sea of mud, some with umbrellas some without. I noticed that everyone was locked in the most haunting stare I have ever seen. People stared at that tiny coffin, silently, motionless, gazing with their brows furrowed in a look of worry and consternation – as though it were their own child being buried. No, as though it were some part of themselves that was being buried. Their faces seemed to ask how it came to be that they survived such a perilous childhood, and at the same time seemed to wonder if indeed they might yet be the next one to be encased in concrete. Their stares were not stares of simply pity or sadness. These stares were deeper than that, more searching than that, more penetrating than that. And again, I began to cry as I saw this same look fall upon the face of every single Zambian gathered – young and old, men and women, because it seemed suddenly, for a moment, the masks fell away and a pervading and abiding hopelessness shone through. The graveside it seems is no place for facades. When will all of this dying finally end?

After the concrete had been shoveled in around the grave by friends of the family, people came close and began to place flowers on the grave. Only, instead of laying them across the coffin, each person carefully placed his or her flower in the dirt atop the grave, and then many proceeded to break the stem, so that the flower would not be collected and then resold. Even something as simple and beautiful as placing a flower on a grave here is marred by the overbearing poverty. As the baby’s parents came to place their flowers, I watched them kneel next to the grave, weeping and holding one another, and I heard Agnes say as she knelt there, “Hallelujah Lord Jesus. Thank you for this child that you gave us. Hallelujah Lord Jesus.” Amidst her tears and her sorrow, amidst her pain and anguish, this dear sister in Christ, knelt by the grave of the daughter she was just getting to know, and now learning to let go of, and she found it within herself somehow, somewhere, to thank God!

Like I said, Zambia is a place of extremes. Extreme sorrow, extreme difficulty, and yet in the middle of it all, Zambians seem to on a regular basis demonstrate extreme faith! And I am reminded at the end of this day, as I sit and hear once again the rain pouring down outside on already extremely wet ground, I am reminded that our God is a God of extremes! We serve a Savior who went to extremes, to accomplish the extreme, for us who are extremely undeserving! And I am reminded today of the extreme privilege it is to be a part of His family, part of His plans, part of His Kingdom. Because when an 18 month old child dies of a preventable and curable disease like malaria, I am reminded that in this world of extreme sorrows, that there is an extreme hope!

And His name is Jesus. Like Agnes said, Hallelujah Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bearing Burdens

Burdens are strange. I suppose it’s because burdens can be either a good thing or bad thing. On the negative side, they can be the result of our own mistakes and foibles in life and can result in us lugging around a lot of extra weight. Or, they can be the result of the things we suffer like sickness and misfortune and can deprive us of the joys of life. On the positive side, a God-given burden can be the driving force that sustains us through the challenges of kingdom work. It can be the propeller that drives us against the current of opposition. It can be the glimmer of hope that causes us to labor where others have given up. It can be that extra bit of inspiration to stay up late hours tweeking that sermon because somewhere deep down we hope to make in difference in somebody’s life.

Our desire, from even before we arrived in Zambia, has been that our ministry here would be the result of a God-given burden. We have wanted our work here to be nothing more than having that which moves God, move us. And we recently returned from a training seminar in South Africa where that very thing took place.

I expected at the outset that this seminar would be, well, very seminarish. You know – tables topped with blue cloths, thick notebooks filled with stuff that we would never look at again once the seminar was over. Lots of adults milling about during the coffee breaks talking about how their ministry would finally take off if only it weren’t for this person, or that government regulation or that pesky little demand of Jesus that we be holy. And, honestly, I looked forward to this seminar about as much as I look forward to having a canned pear topped with a dollop of cottage cheese for dinner (which by the way, is not at all!).

The seminar was designed to equip attendees to teach a youth curriculum entitled “It Takes Courage,” which in a short and oversimplified explanation is a positive approach to helping young people develop Christian character with a component that addresses HIV/AIDS. Anyway, the seminar turned out to be nothing like I had expected (except for the blue tablecloths – there must be a law somewhere that says all seminar hosters must use blue tablecloths).

When we arrived at the seminar, I was quite amazed to find that the vast majority of the attendees – over 90% were in their teens or late 20’s. I’m not sure how to describe what happened during this four day gathering, but I’ll do my best. First of all, what I discovered, was that these young people were not the shallow, and petty and weird (ok… they were a little weird) creatures from outer space that I had expected them to be. What I found instead, was that they are caring, and compassionate, more transparent than most adults I know – and more importantly deeply hungry for a real experience with God! And over the course of this seminar as we discussed some of life’s issues and played a few silly games (that incidentally related back to the life issues discussions) I came to realize how deeply wounded many of these young people are. When one young man stood to give a testimony about how he had rejected his stepfather, another young man at my table commented that at least he had a father. Later during a talent show, a young 16 year old girl stood up, and shared how she had been raped when she was six years old and how as a result she had become very promiscuous as a young teenager. But, she went on to tell how she had discovered the love of Christ and how God had begun to heal and restore her life.

And in the midst of hearing testimonies like those above and watching these young people worship God, Paula and I began to have a strong sense that this is the work to which God is calling us. I began to see how my own disappointments and struggles as a young person, my own string of bad decisions, and my own experience of God’s redemption helped me relate to these young people from half way around the world as though I had known them my whole life. As we got to know them better, though these were all youth from South Africa, for us they sort of came to represent the youth of Zambia. As we heard them talk about their faith and about their passion for serving God, we began to be exceedingly hopeful about what God might do among the youth of Zambia. We thought, if God can do this in South Africa, He can do it in Zambia! And in that way, our prayer was answered, our burden delivered.

Right after getting back from our trip to South Africa we made a trip to our post-office and happened on a horrible sight. As we pulled into the back lot where we usually park, we saw a woman lying on the ground, with blood dripping down her face. A small crowd was gathering and so we jumped out of the car, grabbed the first aid kit and ran over to see if we could help. When we asked what had happened we were told that the lady had gone to the post office to pick up her pension check, and was told it wasn’t there. As she was leaving, she collapsed on the pavement in apparent despair and had a seizure. She had no money to get back home (and perhaps no money at all) and the stress of her situation was more than she could bear. In short, her burdens overwhelmed her. And in seeing this lady, I was reminded of the future for many young people in Zambia if they don’t come to know the One who takes our burdens away! We ask that you would pray for us as we continue to seek God’s guidance in the development of a youth ministry in Zambia and that you would join us in praying for the young people of this nation.

Fact: 47% of the population of Zambia is below the age of 15!